Originally published in the Kindersley Clarion (October 30, 2013)
He had just turned 17.
He was a star linebacker on the high-school football team. He was everyone’s friend. He was a leader on the gridiron and in the community.
This isn’t just a story about the loss of a young life. This isn’t just a story about a family. It isn’t just a story about football either.
This is the story of a young man who inspired everyone he met. It is a story of the community that rallied around another because of the impact that young man had. And it is the story of the football team that helped a community to believe in a better day.
Riley Volk was killed in an automobile collision on Highway 7 just west of Rosetown on Sunday, Oct. 21. His friend and teammate Jared Thornton was seriously injured in the crash and still remains in hospital.
The loss of a young life full of potential is never easy to comprehend for anyone, no matter the cause. Yet here was a family, a team, a school and a community faced with the task of saying goodbye to a son, a brother, a friend, a teammate and a classmate during the chilly weeks of late October.
Volk’s funeral was held Thursday afternoon at Kindersley’s United Church before an emotional but inspiring memorial service at KCS Friday afternoon. The rousing memorial, hosted by town communications coordinator Wayne Gibson, brought laughter, tears, singing and tales of mischief and good-natured youthful enthusiasm. Despite the pain that was palpable in the gymnasium at KCS, the service acted as a moment of group healing for the friends and family of the young football star.
Connie Beacom-Volk, mother of Riley, has been a shining beacon of hope and support throughout the weeks since her son’s passing. Ask any one of the Grade 12 KCS Kobras senior football players or head coach Casey Potter. Out of anyone who has been impacted by the loss of Volk’s character, his mother has been one of the most resilient. Her fortitude has been a cornerstone of strength for a group of young adults trying to comprehend something that has done nothing short of shake their world to its core.
“When Riley entered a room, it lit up. His smile was so inspiring and contagious that you couldn’t help to feel the warmth and sunshine whenever you were with him. If Riley knew that you were feeling sad, he would do whatever he could to make you laugh.”
These words came from Connie prior to kick-off of the Kobras quarter-final playoff game with the Tisdale Trojans Saturday afternoon.
Lost in everything was the fact the Kobras senior football team was slated to hit the field for this provincial quarter-final playoff game Saturday, less than a week after the passing of Volk and hospitalization of Thornton. And really, when comparing life to a game, it is understandable that sport was handed second fiddle in a moment such as this.
Despite the overwhelming events that were ultimately paramount to the gridiron, the team decided it would take to the turf and engage in athletic competition with the Tisdale Trojans in honour and out of respect for their teammates Riley Volk and Jared Thornton.
“They deserved to be there just as much as we did,” said lineman Derek Walde. “They put in the hours that we did, maybe more than some of us even. They deserved to be there, so that drove us. We wanted to win almost for them and for ourselves as a team.
“They’re still a part of the team.”
It was to be the Kobras first home playoff game in 33 years according to assistant coach Cody Slawson.
When Saturday afternoon finally rolled around, it at first seemed like any other regular Kobras game day. The team ran through its regular motions and stretches in preparation of taking to the field as its opposition did the same at the far end.
And then everything changed.
Connie stepped to the microphone, delivering her heart-warming and invigorating speech.
“It was very important to Riley to make sure all of his football teammates felt like they were an important part of the team. It didn’t matter what grade they were in, to him, they were valuable…Riley’s football (team) members were his extended family and he loved you all.”
A moment of silence was held after vice-principal and assistant coach Danny Jewitt addressed the expansive crowd at Rotary Field.
As the silence lifted, there was a feeling in the air that was unlike the feeling on any other game day. Today was different. Today would be different.
“All the support that everyone gave us, we wanted to show them what we were made of and that we can win these games,” added return man and defensive back Luke Sproule.
Ryan Fries, a leader in his own right on this Kobra squad, opened the game by bulling his way down the sidelines on a 35-yard run. But before the Kobras could punch the ball into the end zone, they turned it over, fumbling the pigskin deep in Tisdale territory.
The first quarter was a nail-biter as both teams exchanged possessions, neither able to find a way to score.
“I’ve never really been too nervous before a game, until that one. That was pretty hard,” said Fries, typically a calm, cool and confident character while wearing Kobra gold.
With the opening frame coming to a close, Fries burst through a mass of bodies with a three-yard rushing touchdown. Rotary Field erupted. The Kobras led 7-0 after one quarter.
“We knew we wanted to get a fast start,” said lineman Patrick Johnston. “We used what happened as motivation. We wanted to win it for the boys.”
After capping the Kobras final drive of the first quarter with a major score, Fries would take over in the second quarter.
Having proven to be a powerful runner and strong player on both sides of the ball all season long, the veteran’s game was elevated to a completely different level Saturday afternoon. On opening possession of the second quarter for KCS, Fries took the ball up field 56 yards, shrugging off tackles left, right and centre as he delivered the ball to the end zone for the second time.
“I knew (Riley and Jared) weren’t there. They’re two of our best players,” Fries said. “Everyone else has to step it up because they were such a big part of it.”
If the crowd at Rotary Field was elated on Fries’ first touchdown of the day, it was bordering on out of control following his second.
Not content with a 14-0 lead heading into halftime or his 56-yard rush on the last score, Fries would bust a 63-yard scamper late in the first half. While he didn’t rumble his way past the goal line, Fries set things up for Troy Colley who would secure the football on a nine-yard touchdown run to extend the Kobras lead to 20-0.
The defence got in on the act, coming up with a huge stop on third-and-goal to close out the first half without allowing Tisdale to tally a single point.
With a sizable lead at half, the atmosphere was jubilant as the Kobras powered ahead of the Tornadoes.
“Jared…he was always driving me throughout the season,” said quarterback Josh Livingstone. “I feel like (he is driving me) even more now that he can’t play with us. I feel like I want to be better for (Riley and Jared).”
The Tornadoes would claw back into the game with scores early in both the third and fourth quarters as the Kobra offense slowed. Suddenly the game was within reach for Tisdale as the KCS lead had dissipated to a mere seven points.
Nervous tension filled the air.
Colley would restore the 13-point advantage with a 29-yard rushing touchdown in immediate response to the Tornadoes fourth-quarter opening score. The momentum was about to shift heavily in the Kobras favour once again.
On Tisdale’s ensuing drive, the Tornadoes would fumble the ball on the opening play. Big man Derek Walde would drop on the ball, recovering it for the Kobras and setting up KCS with phenomenal field position on the Tisdale 12-yard line. It was a hole the Tornadoes would be unable to dig out of.
While KCS failed to add any more points on the board, they did manage to pin Tisdale deep. Defensive lineman JD Knutson would hammer home the victory with a goal line sack of Tornadoes quarterback Marty Riddick.
As the final buzzer sounded, an indescribable feeling filled the air at Rotary Field.
“What we went through (during) the week,” Walde said, “we really had no practice at all. We didn’t do any game planning. No film, really at all.
“To see us go out there and perform really well in a high-pressure situation was really nice. It was almost a relief.”
This wasn’t just a victory on the field for the KCS Kobras football team. This was a victory for the Volk family. This was a victory for the students of Kindersley Composite School. This was a victory for a community that was in mourning.
Still dripping from the ceremonial water-cooler shower he received, head coach Casey Potter crouched alone on the edge of the field as his players and fellow coaches were rushed by friends, family and neighbours.
“At that point, I realized we’d had success,” Potter said. “And it was just kind of coming to the realization of everything that’s happened.”
As Potter rose to his feet and joined his soldiers, it was as if a cloud lifted from over KCS and Rotary Field. Smiles spread across the crowd as players, parents, teachers and neighbours embraced.
Lineman Patrick Johnson, not a small man by any means, launched himself into the outstretched arms of his coach.
“I gave him the heads up,” Johnston said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to get dropped. It was just a really exciting moment and after (coach) Potter got all that water dumped on him…it seemed kind of fitting.”
The entire field was filled with the sort of emotion and embrace you expect from a Hollywood movie scene.
“We haven’t been this far in a long time,” Slawson said. “The old (Kobras) who came out who played a playoff game once in their lifetime, coming from a very rough start of the Kobra athletics…(to see the boys) winning one at home after everything that had just happened, and watching the community come together, was just awesome.”
Riley Volk shone down on all of Kindersley that day and the Kobras shone brighter than ever before in honour of their fallen teammate.
Speaking with Volk back in late August prior to the start of the season, all he wanted was a home playoff game. His teammates not only honoured his memory, they gave his family and his extended KCS family much more than just a home playoff game Saturday afternoon.
“If there were any two guys who would give anything to win, it would be Riley and Thornton,” Slawson said. “They would lay it all down to win.
“They’re always with us. Football is a brotherhood, I like to call it. It’s one big family so that is why getting this far means a lot not only to the community, but to us. We have nothing else to lose.”
The Kobras gave an entire town reason to believe. Just as Volk had left his mark on each and every person he crossed paths with, the Kobras left a mark on everyone who was at Rotary Field that day.
The courage it took for those boys to take to the field and win a game of that magnitude was an inspiration to everyone in attendance. After all, the team really had nothing to lose. After the week they had experienced, no one would have laid blame or criticism had the Kobras folded under the pressure. Instead, they hit the field and delivered a message of hope.
This is the story of a football team whose courage helped kick-start the healing process for a community in mourning. It is the story of how a young man gave courage to those he loved most.
This is the celebration of a young life well-lived.
He is a young man whose spirit lives on through the smiles he spread.
He is a young man whose memory thrives as it continues to bring a tight-knit community that much closer together.